Paper Cranes

by Cheyana Leatham

Winner of the 2019 Black Rock & Sage Inaugural Online Contest

I am trying to do the right thing; I am trying to be different. But the ghosts of my past just haunt me, and I am a prisoner to what you taught me.
Clarissa Jackman

“How many of you think that it was justified?” was the question. I sat in my world history class – this was before I left the country the first time – and I didn’t understand the answers my classmates gave. I chalked it up to the school I was passing through, one of the many during my high school years. People can’t be like this everywhere, I told myself.

“More people would have died if the war had continued,” someone said. 

“What about Pearl Harbor?” Another classmate brought up.

I had replies to everything in my head, but my inability to argue without crying prevented me from saying anything about the difference between soldiers and civilians, the comparisons of numbers, or any other rebuttal.

This was the same year my family hosted Mayuko as an exchange student. Though our countries, cultures, and childhoods were very different, we found that we still had so much in common. While I have sisters through blood, Mayuko is my sister through choice.

I had shown her everything that I grew up with that made me who I am. My family’s cabin, how to ride a snowmobile, my favorite drive through the country, the best movies and music I knew. In exchange she shared her culture and personality with me, too. She would show me pictures of her local shrines, tell me horror stories she had written, demonstrate her favorite art projects, and she would share foods that were, most of the time, amazing.

One of the many things she showed me was how to fold a paper crane. Mine always looked terrible compared to hers. The creases weren’t strong or exact, but I practiced a lot. I used to fold cranes out of old school papers or pieces of menus at restaurants. After folding a crane, I would hand the fat, messy bird to Mayuko.

“If you pull its tail, it flaps its wings!” I would laugh proudly. The nice ones didn’t do that.

One night, we were staying up late, talking. She mentioned that she had gotten into an argument with a classmate at school.

“It makes me mad,” she said. “I have things I want to say, but I don’t know the English words to say them.” This was about halfway into the year. When she first arrived, she could say basic greetings; by the time she left, she was completely fluent. It was awesome to watch how much she improved.

Sometimes we would talk about politics. We both found it interesting how the same history was taught to us differently. I had heard that Japan was expanding during World War 2 and threatening to take over Hawaii. Because of this, there was a conflict between ships that led to Pearl Harbor, which led to the declaration of war. She had learned that Japan’s power was increasing, which scared the United States, who told them to “become weak again,” which led to the ship’s conflicts. Though the story is the same, the perspective makes a difference. We talked about these conflicts and compared our different views, but never resented each other for them.

After a year, it was time for her to go home and she invited me to go with her. I had spent the year learning about her country, but I wanted to see it in person.

Everything in Japan was so different. I spent the first week jetlagged and incredibly culture shocked. I had more empathy for Mayuko. This must have been how she felt when she first got to the United States, except at the time she didn’t know anyone or have someone to talk with in her native tongue. It was a bit uncomfortable, a little terrifying, but mostly it was all exhilarating.

Back at home, I had loved the stories and pictures she shared about shrines. When I got to Japan, I found that my impression was right, and they quickly became my favorite places.

 Usually tucked within nature, they are filled with traditional Japanese architecture and surrounded by the greenest and tallest trees I had ever seen. It is always quiet in these shrines as people go to pray to their local gods. There is no place that I have ever been since that is as peaceful as they are. 

The serenity is created, in part, by the appearance: the smell of the trees and the rain, painted gates and wooden buildings, the sound of a bell before someone begins a prayer and pulls the large rope, stone pathways that people walk along the edges of, leaving the middle open for the gods. But there is something else that adds to the tranquility of the shrines. When people gather and pray for peace, it changes the way an area feels. There is an aura in these shrines that is fueled by the desire to see, speak, and hear no evil.

Mayuko taught me how to pray at these places. I have made plenty of mistakes in learning how to go to a shrine because of the specific rituals involved, but the feeling of doing them right is always satisfying. Throw a coin into the box as an offering, bow twice, clap twice, pray, then bow again. Praying to gods I had never heard of before was a strange feeling. These were local gods; they protect their own villages, and I didn’t know what to pray about. My first prayer probably went something along the lines of: “Please keep doing what you’re doing. Thanks for letting me visit. Sorry if you don’t understand English.”

We stayed in her hometown of Tochigi but also toured around the surrounding prefectures. We were making our way from Tochigi to Hiroshima. I sat on the bus, looking out into the city. Sitting in front of us was an older woman, her face lined with wrinkles. She started a friendly conversation with Mayuko as I watched the mountains, rivers, and green trees fade in and out of view outside. I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but sometimes they would look at me and smile, and I would smile back, always a bit apologetically because I felt bad about not knowing very much of the language.

Eventually, the conversation turned serious. The woman started to get emotional and would still turn to me now and then with a meaningful look, making me feel involved, though I didn’t even know the topic.

“What did she say?” I asked Mayuko after we climbed off the bus.

“She was here when the bomb fell,” she explained solemnly. “She said she would probably never forgive America.”

“Oh,” I said, nodding with an understanding that I didn’t have. I didn’t know what to say. 

“But she also said she was glad that you came to visit,” she continued. “To learn about what happened.”

We walked towards our first destination, the Genbaku Dome—the building the bomb landed on. It didn’t fit in with the modern buildings surrounding it. The cement bricks held onto the metal center pillar, giving it a conflicting feeling of fragility and strength.

I was quiet throughout this walk, my mind still on the woman on the bus. When we got there, Mayuko pulled me in for a picture in front of the structure. That was the moment when everything hit me.

There was something about taking a picture in front of the damage that my country had done that made me feel sick. I wasn’t ignorant of what had happened. I knew stories and numbers, and I already hated that it had happened, but it was smiling for a picture that unsettled me the most. I felt I didn’t have a right to be there. I thought I didn’t have a right to be proud of my country anymore. I started to wonder if I even had a right to be close to the person that I considered my sister.

I wanted to go back and tell the older woman that I didn’t agree with dropping the bomb, that I knew it was evil. Most of all, I wanted to say to her that I was sorry, but even though I knew the words in Japanese, an insignificant apology would never bring back her city, friends, and family.

I remember vividly the thoughts that were going through my mind. It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t even alive at the time, but I had been so patriotic, so proud of my country. I had been ignorant and naive. As we continued walking around the city, all I could feel was ashamed.

After a while, we came to a street vendor selling ice cream and decided to stop. I was standing away from Mayuko as she went to order for us. A moment later, she was waving me towards her.

She pointed at a stack of origami paper on top of the cart.

“While we wait, we can fold a crane.” She said, handing me one of the papers.

I took the paper, and we both folded a bird with the Genbaku Dome still in sight. When I finished, she took it from me and handed it to the man who we had bought ice cream from.

“He’ll put it with the others.” And there were thousands.

While we continued walking around Hiroshima, I noticed the most important theme of all: peace. Since the bombing, Hiroshima has become a beautiful city that promotes peace everywhere I looked. Paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of peace, were sculpted, folded, and displayed everywhere.

The cranes that were folded were added and incorporated into the dozens of other sculptures around the city.

My favorite sculpture was the Hiroshima Cenotaph. It looked like a large arched tunnel that, when I looked through, I could see a lit torch. This fire, called the Peace Flame, will stay lit until the world is no longer in danger from nuclear weapons. I watched as people came up to the sculpture and looked at the flame, their faces often reflecting the same emotion I was feeling.

Prayers of peace do something to an area. It changes the way they feel. The Cenotaph feels like a shrine. As I stood there, looking at the fire, prayers ran through my head. It’s not prayers understood by language or words, but just a want for things to be different.

Beyond the flame, you can look back at the Genbaku Dome. As I glanced once again at the damaged ruins, I thought back to the older woman on the bus. Like her, it wore its torment elegantly, surrounded by a beautiful, peaceful city; but most importantly, by people who are intent on preventing this catastrophe from repeating.

Japan’s government is constantly writing letters to other countries, begging them to stop creating and testing nuclear weapons. The country is making a powerful effort to stop the destruction that happened to them from happening to anyone else. They want to protect other countries, but they are asking people who do not understand the amount of suffering and pain that Japan itself has endured.

To these other countries, it is like looking at pictures of the shrines. They make an interesting photograph, but they are too far away to understand the feeling behind them completely.

If I could take the people of that world history class and put them in Hiroshima, maybe then they would get it. If they saw the ruins, and the devastated older woman, and felt the emotions of the area, maybe they would understand.

It took me a long time to feel proud of my country again. I had to realize that there are things here that I love more than anything: that cabin tucked in the mountains, quartets, technicolor, how people can be so different from each other and still manage to have beautiful relationships.

Over seventy years ago, many people made a horrible choice, but the actions of the government are not necessarily the actions of all the people of a country. That doesn’t mean that we are powerless to do anything about them, though.

Hiroshima had something terrible happen, and nothing will ever make up for what the United States did to them and Nagasaki. But there is no place in the world where people will promote peace and fight for it more. I wasn’t alive at the time of the Hiroshima bombing. It wasn’t my fault. But if it happens again, it will be.

It’s been over five years since I first visited Hiroshima. As I was thinking about the experience, I decided to message Mayuko. I asked her if she remembered the elderly lady on the bus.

“Of course,” she sent back. “I’m glad you remember her, too.”


Cheyana Leatham is a senior at Idaho State University who will never graduate because she keeps taking on more projects. Her major is English with an emphasis on creative writing and her minor is global studies, which is the topic she mainly likes to write about.

Clarissa Jackman graduated from Idaho State University Fall, 2019.


Special thanks to Dr. Leekyung Kang for selecting the art piece published alongside the “Paper Cranes” and to the rest of the Idaho State University Art Department for being so willing to work alongside BR&S in order to publish the best in student works in this new medium.